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Sylver: As Eastern Conference shifts around them, Celtics still face issues of their own

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Seems like just yesterday, NBA pundits were eager to hand the Eastern Conference to the Boston Celtics.

A month into the season, the Celtics haven’t done much to inspire confidence in those predictions.

Following a 1-4 road trip, they grabbed a blowout win over the lowly Bulls before a back-to-back with the Raptors and Jazz, two teams who’d beaten Boston in their previous matchups. Kyrie Irving went off for 43 points in the overtime win over Toronto, but the Green quickly settled settled back into mediocrity Saturday night against Utah.

Now sporting a 9-7 record, the Celtics currently sit fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Despite the middling results, they still have the best defensive rating in the league. Boston’s night-in, night-out issues have been offensive in nature. Brad Stevens boasts a modern NBA roster, complete with players who fit multiple positions, with the threes coming in waves (third most attempts in the league). Even the big guys are firing away from distance. But Stevens has struggled to find consistent production from his talented bunch.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the 27-hour span from Friday night’s tip against Toronto to the fourth quarter Saturday, when Stevens hauled his starters off the floor as the Jazz ran them over.

Apr 3, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks with guard Kadeem Allen (45) during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While Friday’s headlines were deservedly dominated by Irving, behind the box score was a Celtics team hell bent on attacking the paint, even when occupied by trees Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. The result was a number of what Sean Grande refers to as “hockey assists,” where the key pass in a possession doesn’t necessarily come right before the shot, but rather on the one before that. Sometimes the result was more immediate: The defense collapsing around a player who either kicked it out to a shooter or looked inside for a cutter and an easy two.

When the ball doesn’t get in the paint, Boston possessions often end in unimaginative heaves, either from beyond the arc (where they're a sobering 19th in three-point percentage after finishing second last year) or from just inside (they’re 28th in executing “long twos”). When the Celtics drifted from an attacking strategy Friday, the Raptors went on runs. Eventually, Irving made a point of going to the basket nearly every single time down the court, and the results exhibited the value of that approach.

Saturday night, the C’s again drifted, particularly during a dreadful third period when they went 0-for-10 from behind the arc and visited the free throw line a total of three times (they’re also circling the NBA drain in free throws attempted). Conspicuously terrified of Rudy Gobert, only one Boston starter outside of Irving attempted a free throw on the night: It was Gordon Hayward, who converted his lone attempt.

This isn’t anything new. Boston’s offensive identity last season wasn’t exactly an homage to old school post play. But we saw a lot more ball movement and consistent baseline cuts from the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Having multiple distributors on the floor at the same time should encourage movement to get better shots. Instead, shot distribution seems to be on everyone’s mind, as individuals frequently rise up early in the shot clock or kill the clock trying to out-duel defenders off the dribble.

It's maddening. Particularly rearing its ugly head after a feel-good win.

Luckily, the schedule softens from here and Stevens and his players should have time to figure things out.

Nov 8, 2018; Phoenix, AZ: Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens looks on from the sidelines in the game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Celtics won 116-109 in overtime. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
Nov 8, 2018; Phoenix, AZ: Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens looks on from the sidelines in the game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Celtics won 116-109 in overtime. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)

But while the Celtics are busy working on themselves, the world around them is changing, the tectonic plates of the conference shifting position. Though Boston escaped with a win this weekend, Kawhi Leonard has pushed the Raptors to a new level. In Milwaukee, Mike Budenholzer and 35-year-old GM Jon Horst overhauled the Bucks and watched them roll to a 7-0 start - they’re currently second in the East. And the Philadelphia 76ers pulled off a move for Jimmy Butler, consolidating talent just as the Celtics did with their move for Kyrie Irving 15 months ago.

In a way, the Celtics are old news. It’s hard to tell if Nick Nurse is the second coming of Pat Riley or a guy with a bunch of data succeeding in a small sample size, but with Leonard and Danny Green, Toronto is out to shed its reputation as the Cincinnati Bengals of the NBA (credit to my friend @realjcorwin on that one). Leonard is hoisting a Herculean stat line, and the 31-year-old Green is having his best year since before the dawn of the Warriors Dynasty. A resurgent Ibaka and third-year man Pascal Siakam also caused problems at TD Garden the other night. While they got the duke Friday, the Celtics have lost seven straight in Toronto, a streak they'd like to avoid continuing in the spring.

Milwaukee took a very different Celtics squad to seven games last spring. But the Bucks themselves have changed. Buzenholzer has conjured memories of his 60-win Hawks team from 2015, clearing space for The Greek Freak and Khris Middleton to operate. Milwaukee added a handful of stretchy shooters in the offseason and Brook Lopez is on pace to shatter the record for most three-pointers in a season by a seven-footer. The Bucks are tops in the NBA in offensive rating, and Antetokounmpo appears to be a frontrunner for MVP.

Philly welcomed Butler Wednesday night in a game where Joel Embiid put up a triple-double in a loss. After the game, Embiid displayed thinly-veiled dissatisfaction with coach Brett Brown’s rotations (which had whisked him off to the bench after a hot start). This comes from a player who once took to Instagram to protest the layer of bubble wrap the organization put around him last season. With noted malcontent Butler now in the mix, the Sixers rebounded to win two in a row. Once the steward of a tanking bunch, one wonders if Brown can find the right recipe with a super-talented roster, as Philly’s ceiling is among the highest in the NBA. In fairness, the organization should give him time to figure it out, but one can’t imagine Brown has the same leash Stevens does.

The Sixers are just a game ahead of Boston in the standings. The Bucks are just 4-4 since the hot start. You might remember the Celtics winning 16 consecutive games before last Thanksgiving and then floating back to the pack. Making adjustments to sustain momentum is a hallmark of a title contender. As is the ability to kick out of a funk.

Talented, successful teams are also able to get out of their own way. Just look at the situation in Golden State, where they’ve lost five out of seven. They've been able to put aside ego before, but will it be personality issues that keep them from a fourth championship in five years?

The chorus imploring Brad Stevens to change the rotation has grown louder than ever. Boston has admittedly faced a tough schedule thus far, but they’re a long way off from hitting the panic button. It may be that the Celtics are who we thought they were in terms of talent, but it’s on them to be the best version of themselves.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.